Loving Gaṇeśa: Hinduism’s Endearing Elephant-Faced God




How to Become a Hindu§

Hinduḥ Katham Bhūyate§

हिन्दुः कथं भूयतॆ§


ImageERITABLY, CONVERSION IS A RED HOT TOPIC IN INDIA THIS MONTH, what with the Pope’s visit in November and the US Baptists’ insulting October prayers for the conversion of “900 million people lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.” Those who know history know that the concept of changing one’s faith is nothing new for Hinduism. Long before Islam or Christianity had even begun, Jainism and Buddhism contended with the Sanātana Dharma for the allegiance of India’s masses. Great Hindu saints, such as Adi Shankara, Appar and Sundarar, gained fame in large part through their opposition to these nascent religions—an opposition so successful as to practically abolish both in the land of their birth. The other edge of conversion’s sword figured when South Indian kings colonized Cambodia, Bali and other parts of Southeast Asia, for in those days, the way of things was the way of kings: the religion of the ruler was the religion of the subjects.§

While Hindus are worried about Christian efforts to “save the Pagans,” millions in the West are quietly adopting Hinduism in a remarkable and little-discussed silent conversion, a conversion no less powerful and far more extensive than in the past. Sincere seekers in Europe, Africa and the Americas are starting to call themselves Hindu and seek formal entrance into the faith. They are the result of 150 years of Hindu philosophy surging out from India in several waves: first as scriptural translations, then itinerant holy men such as Swāmī Vivekananda, and most recently as part of the diaspora of Hindus out of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and the resulting establishment of temples and ashrams in nearly every country of the world. The central Hindu concepts of karma, dharma and reincarnation are now understood by tens of millions not born in the faith but exposed to it through music, film and television, and even commercial advertising.§

There remains a significant contingent of orthodox Hindus today who firmly preach that Hinduism does not accept converts. They believe that one must be born a Hindu. Outsiders, no matter how learned or devoted, must wait until another lifetime to enter the faith. Leave alone that this opinion goes against historical fact, many modern Hindu scholars readily acknowledge that Hinduism does indeed accept converts. In 1899, Swāmī Vivekananda proclaimed, “Why, born aliens have been converted in the past by crowds, and the process is still going on. This statement not only applies to aboriginal tribes, to outlying nations, and to almost all our conquerors before the Mohammedan conquest, but also to all those castes who find a special origin in the Puranas. I hold that they have been aliens thus adopted.” Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, former president of India, confirms the swāmī’s views in a brief passage from his well-known book, The Hindu View of Life: “In a sense, Hinduism may be regarded as the first example in the world of a missionary religion. Only its missionary spirit is different from that associated with the proselytizing creeds. It did not regard it as its mission to convert humanity to any one opinion. Worshipers of different Gods and followers of different rites were taken into the Hindu fold. The ancient practice of vrātyastoma, described fully in the Taṇḍya Brāhmaṇa, shows that not only individuals but whole tribes were absorbed into Hinduism. Many modern sects accept outsiders. Dvala’s Smṛiti lays down rules for the simple purification of people forcibly converted to other faiths, or of womenfolk defiled and confined for years, and even of people who, for worldly advantage, embrace other faiths.”§

To the born Hindu of today, the question of entering Hinduism may appear unnecessary, for by one common definition Hinduism is a way of life, a culture, both religious and secular. The Hindu is not accustomed to thinking of his religion as a clearly defined system, distinct and different from other systems, for it fills his every experience. It encompasses all of life. This pure, simple view has to do, in part, with Hinduism’s all-embracing quality, to accept so many variations of belief and practice into itself. But this view ignores the true distinctions between this way of life and the ways of the world’s other great religions. There is no denying that Hinduism is also a distinct world religion, and to hold otherwise in today’s world is a stance fraught with risk.§

If Hinduism is not a religion, then it is not entitled to the same rights and protections given to religion by the nations of the world. As just one example, in colonial Trinidad, Hinduism was not recognized as a religion, Hindu marriages were therefore considered illegal, Hindu children illegitimate and unqualified to inherit property. A great deal of Hindu ancestral property was forfeited to the colonial Christian government. The claim that Hinduism is “not a religion” weakens its position socially and legally with respect to other religions in the world community.§


Among Hinduism’s four major denominations Vaishṇavism, Śaivism, Śaktism and Smārtism—only the Smārta lineage, represented by the various Śaṅkarāchāryas in India such as of Sringeri and Puri, does not accept converts. Smārta priests serving in American temples have consistently refused to perform the nāmakaraṇa samskāra, the name-giving ceremony, for non-Hindus by which they could enter the religion. But the spiritual leaders and priests of the remaining sects—representing perhaps ninety percent of Hindus—actively engage in conversion rites.§

The hundreds of Hindu swāmīs, pandits and lay persons who regularly travel outside India are a relatively passive band, offering a reasoned presentation of beliefs that listeners are only expected to consider and accept or reject. There is no proselytizing, no tearing down of other faiths. Hindu philosophy lacks the missionary compulsion to bring the whole world into its fold in a kind of spiritual colonialism and cultural invasion. That kind of conversion, which has gone on in India for centuries now, has seriously disrupted communities, turned son against father, wife against husband, friend against friend. Coupled with the enticement of material gain and destruction of ancient traditions, it has destroyed lives. The Hindu form of preaching does none of this.§

A direct result of hundreds of swāmīs and yogīs coming to the West, and of tens of thousands of Westerners journeying to India, is the desire by some non-Hindus to become Hindu. The question then is, “How?” This is an issue that we faced five decades ago. Instructed by the great saint of Sri Lanka, Satguru Siva Yogaswami, to “build a bridge between East and West,” I began my mission in America in 1957 and soon tackled the thorny issue of just how to enter the Hindu fold. As with many Americans, I had no prior religion. Hinduism was my first. This early experience, in my twenties, set the pattern for my ministry in the years to come. We call the pattern “Ethical Conversion,” a six-step method that results in a sincere and lasting commitment to the Hindu faith. The Śivāchārya priests of India explained to me that it would take three generations to fully establish Hinduism in a new country.§


The most innovative step in ethical conversion—and what truly makes it ethical—is severing from any former faiths. The devotee is asked to go back to his prior religious leader, priest, rabbi, etc., and explain his change of belief in a face-to-face meeting. The leader may attempt to talk the devotee out of his intention, or honor the depth of his new commitment and understanding.§

Why such a formal process? In 1966, the Vishva Hindu Parishad issued this definition: “Hindu means a person believing in, following or respecting the eternal values of life, ethical and spiritual, which have sprung up in Bharatkhand [India] and includes any person calling himself a Hindu.” While self-declaration remains the basic way to enter the Hindu faith, the VHP’s 1998 Dharma Samsad meeting in America called for the development of “a process for accepting willing non-Hindus into the Hindu fold, which is an important concern among Hindus living in America.” Those concerns include intermarriage, the need for a non-Hindu spouse to adopt the religion of his or her mate and raise their children in a purely Hindu home. Another is the standing policy of most Indian swamis in the West to not formally convert their devotees to Hinduism. They give a Hindu first name, and create what may be called an “Ardha-Hindu”—“Half-Hindu”—who finds himself separated by newfound belief and practice from his old faith, but not fully embraced by his new one. The situation gets especially precarious when it comes to raising children. Are they Hindus, or what? The practical outcome in the last twenty years is that they are raised with no faith.§

By setting a standard of ethical conversion, Hindus can also help alter the otherwise predatory nature of religious conversion. If, to apply the idea to another faith, every Hindu who wanted to become a Christian went successfully through an ethical conversion, there would be no claims by Hindus that he had been bribed, coerced, enticed or otherwise forced into the change. Of course, there would also be a lot fewer conversions! Finally, this is a time when religions are looking for ways to get along better. Unfortunately, the disruptive conversion tactics of missionary religions are rarely on the agenda at global meetings. By advocating ethical conversion, Hindus can overcome the single greatest obstacle to interfaith harmony.§


After teaching Hinduism in America for more than fifty years, we at Himalayan Academy have become expert at helping sincere and ardent non-Hindus to enter the Hindu faith in a sincere and lasting manner. Our decades of experience have resulted in the following six steps. This is strictly a program of self-conversion. The motivation comes solely from the individual, and the steps are rigorous enough to require continual demonstration of sincerity.§

1. Joining a Hindu community§

First and most importantly, the devotee mixes socially with and earns acceptance into an established Hindu community. He worships regularly at the community’s satsaṅgas or temples, makes yearly pilgrimages, performs daily pūjā and sādhanas within the home and strives to live up to the culture.§

2. Point-Counterpoint§

The devotee undertakes certain assigned studies according to the Hindu denomination he seeks to enter. Simultaneously, he makes a formal analysis of his former religions, denominations, sampradāyas or philosophical systems. He then writes a point-counterpoint comparing Hinduism with each such school of thought, carefully noting the similarities and differences. Part two of this assignment is to complete a written analysis of all former pledges or vows (such as those taken at confirmation), indicating when and why each point mentioned in those vows was abandoned. This point-counterpoint is presented to a Hindu elder for review and comment.§

3. Severing from Former Mentors§

Formal severance is required if the devotee was officially a member of a particular religious denomination, such as the Catholic Church. If he did not formally belong to any religious denomination or institution, he goes on to step four. To complete formal severance, he returns to the former institution and attends services or lectures for a few weeks. Then, accompanied by a relative or friend as a witness, he meets personally with the minister, priest, rabbi, imam or mentor. The devotee explains that he will be joining the Hindu religion and wishes to sever ties with this church or institution. The object is to give the minister the face-to-face opportunity to talk the devotee out of his change of faith. If the devotee successfully conveys his sincerity to the minister, he requests an official letter of severance, stating that he is no longer a member of the former institution. The minister or priest may not give a letter, may give a release verbally or may refuse to give any form of release. Even in the latter situation, having declared his apostasy, the inner severance is accomplished. In the case of the Catholic Church, anyone who adopts another religion is automatically an apostate and not allowed to receive communion, confession, penance or other rites of the Church.§

4. Adopting a Hindu Name§

The devotee then proceeds to have a legal change of name. The new name is placed on his passport, driver’s license and all important financial or legal instruments, including credit cards, library cards and bank accounts. Even before formal entrance to Hinduism, the devotee is encouraged to begin using his Hindu name—first and last—at all times.§

5. The Nāmakaraṇa Samskāra§

The name-giving sacrament, nāmakaraṇa samskāra, can be held at any Hindu temple. Before the ceremony, the devotee informs family, relatives and close friends of his or her name change and intended entrance into Hinduism. At the sacred name-giving rite, the Hindu name is formally received, vows are taken and a certificate is signed, documenting the former name and the new name, place of ceremony and signature of the priest and at least three witnesses. (A sample nāmakaraṇa certificate is provided on page 412 for this purpose.)§

6. Announcing the Name-Giving§

After the severance and name-giving, the devotee publishes a three-day announcement in a local newspaper stating that the name-change has been completed and that he or she has entered the Hindu religion through the nāmakaraṇa samskāra. The devotee should keep a copy of these announcements and all other documents related to the conversion (such as letters from attorneys and elders) as part of a dossier verifying the name-giving, as these may be needed in the future, such as when seeking acceptance into a conservative Hindu organization or seeking permanent residency or citizenship in a foreign country. Similarly, many temples in India and other countries will ask to see the passport or other appropriate proof of Hindu identity before admitting devotees of non-Indian origin for more than casual worship.§


The vrātyastoma ceremony (“vow pronouncement”), dating back to the Taṇḍya Brāhmaṇa of the Ṛig Veda, is performed for Hindus returning to India from abroad and for those who have embraced other faiths and now wish to reembrace Hinduism. One finds a wide range of converts in India, from communities such as the Syrian Malabar Christians who adopted Christianity shortly after that religion’s founding, to the Muslim converts of a thousand years ago, to Indians converted in the last few generations. Especially in the case of many recent converts, the conversion is often superficial, and the return to Hinduism is a simple matter of ceremonial recognition. In other cases, complete reeducation is required.§

There are many organizations in India active in reconversion, some motivated by fears of non-Hindu dominance in regions once all Hindu. The Masurāśrama in Mumbai specializes in reconversions through a Śuddhi Śraddha ceremony, bringing dozens of converts back into the Sanātana Dharma each month. Masurāśrama founder, Dharma Bhaskar Masurkar Maharaj, set a strong precedent in 1928 when he organized the purification rite for 1,150 devotees in Goa who had previously converted to Christianity. About the same time, Swami Agamanandaji of the Ramakṛishṇa Mission in Kerala reconverted hundreds to Hinduism, as did Narayana Guru. More recently, two South Indian ashrams—Madurai Aadheenam and Kundrakuddi Aadheenam—have brought thousands of Indians back into Hinduism in mass conversion rites. Since the early 1960s, the Vishva Hindu Parishad has reportedly reconverted a half-million individuals through Śuddhi ceremonies all over India. The VHP activities are extremely distressing to the Christian missionaries who, according to an analysis published in HINDUISM TODAY, February, 1989, spent about us$6,000 to win over each convert.§

It is vital that reconversion campaigns are followed up with continuing education, social improvement, community temple building and priest training to create fully self-sustaining groups.§


On the following page is a vrātyastoma certificate that can be photocopied (enlarged or changed as needed) to document this purification ceremony held at any temple. This sacrament marks the formal reentrance into a particular sect of Hinduism through acceptance by established members and the blessings of Gods and devas invoked through rites performed by an authorized priest.§